Sunday, October 21, 2012

The First Girl I Kissed

When I was young I was sent off to various camps on the east coast and one was Killooleet in Hancock, Vermont.  It was run by the brother of my idol Pete Seeger, the folk singer.  It was probably the only camp I really enjoyed.  There was a lot of freedom with responsibility for the campers and in this story I was a month shy of my 13th birthday.

I wish I could remember all the details but, alas, I can’t.  I do remember falling in love for the first time.  Maybe I shouldn’t even use that term, but I know I had this great urge to kiss this girl, Ellie, and I finally mustered up the courage to do so. 

My mother died a few years ago and I found all sorts of interesting souvenirs that she kept and among them I found a plastic barometer and it rang a bell.  I was not sure I could trust my memory that this was the Bar Mitzvah present that Ellie gave me a couple of months after we met.  I found, however, my mother’s notebook where she wrote down all my gifts and there it said, barometer from Elinor Gollay.  There also were letters I had sent home from camp reporting on important matters such as sitting next to Ellie at the dinner table and other exciting tidbits.  Then back in New York, Ellie invited me to Broadway theater and I remember seeing West Side Story from the house seats.  My parents usually took me upstairs somewhere.  Now that made an impression on a 13 year old.

Bar Mitzvah Barometer

Elinor Gollay

This was not something I obsessed over but some 50 odd years later I came across an article in an art blog talking about the modern collection that was on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida lent by Elinor Gollay and her step mother, Jean.  Coincidentally, shortly, before I read the article, I had been to St. Petersburg, Florida and seen their gem of a museum and met the curator of the exhibition and chief curator, Jennifer Hardin.

By getting in touch with Jennifer I found out how to reach Ellie. She had actually lived in Santa Fe years ago and still travels back to New Mexico from time to time with her husband to visit his family. Two weeks ago Ellie with her spouse and I with mine had lunch together in Bernalillo situated between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

All our lives are so much about the connections we make and the serendipity of life. Ellie’s father’s collection is the hook that allows me to tell you about my early love life in my Missives from the Art World.  When I met Elinor her parents were already divorced and all I remember is a reference to her father being a lawyer for some famous artists.

Benjamin Gollay (1906-1983) was a New York lawyer living in the West Village.  He became good friends with, the art critic and champion of the abstract expressionists Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978) and through him in the 1950’s he met quite a number of members of New York School.  He became an avid fan of many, such as Franz Klein, Robert Motherwell and Elaine and Willem de Kooning.

"Harold Rosenberg" by Elaine De Kooning
See credit line 1, below

Eventually Gollay bought a house in East Hampton, which was then not the posh location it is today, but an inexpensive retreat from the city that became a haven for artists. There he became close personal friends with these not yet household names.  Ellie does not refer to her father as an art collector because his love was for the artists themselves.  He often did favors for them in the way of legal services and out of friendship and gratitude they would bring him examples of their art. Every once in a while he would realize that one of the artists had fallen on particularly hard times and he would buy a painting, sometimes without even seeing it before hand.

In 1966 Gollay remarried to Jean Block.  Willem de Kooning inscribed one of his paintings from his famous “Woman Series” as a wedding gift and dedicated it "To Ben and Jean from Bill."

From "Woman Series" by Willem De Kooning
See credit line 2, below

He never asked for art and some artists therefore thought that he did not like their work.  Such was the case of Franz Klein: when Harold Rosenberg told Gollay this he went over to Klein’s house the next day and found he had died that very same day!

In this way he eventually amassed 150 paintings by artists who are now famous.  Truth be told they did not all become famous, but even works by the lesser-known, such as Norman Bluhm (1920-1999), are, none-the-less, good representations of the New York School.

"Untitled" by Norman Bluhm
See credit line 3, below

Benjamin Gollay died in 1983 and the collection was inherited by his wife and daughter   who have generously lent and made gifts to the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg.

Life has many funny twists and turns and it can be great fun to follow them.  It was so exciting to see Ellie again, and to learn more about her father’s collection, and that our paths might have crossed before here in Santa Fe, or even where she lives now in Portland, Oregon, where my wife worked for a decade!


Photo Credit Lines:

1) Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978)
By ELAINE DE KOOING, (1918-1989)
Oil on canvas, 1956
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

American, 1920-1999
Untitled, 1974
Acrylic on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida
Gift of Elinor Gollay from the Benjamin Gollay Collection

American, b. the Netherlands (1904–1998)
UNTITLED, from the WOMAN series, c.1966
Oil on newspaper mounted on board
Extended loan to the Museum by Elinor Gollay
from the Benjamin Gollay Collection

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